There they were, on stage yesterday at that gentle springtime ritual called the Flower Mart, gritting their teeth for the assembled crowd and pretending they feel a rose petal's ounce of civility for each other: the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, and the first lady of Maryland, Kendel Ehrlich, separated only by that thin layer of human diplomacy and tact named William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer, wearing a battered railroad engineer's cap and sticking his tongue out for the cameras, is now the calm one out there. Oh, Lord.
"Hello, Mrs. Ehrlich," the mayor said he had declared formally as the state comptroller got out of the way. O'Malley did not precisely look Mrs. Ehrlich in the eye. She nodded back, equally avoiding eye contact and not betraying any hostile impulses. Then they went back to their neutral corners, and Schaefer stepped between them again. And this, friends, is what passes for political peace in our time.
At least, for the moment.
But it was brief. For, in the morning, there was O'Malley at a City Hall news conference, letting go but good. And, in the afternoon, moments after he and Mrs. Ehrlich left the Flower Mart platform, O'Malley vented some more. And somewhere in between, not to let the moment slip past, there was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. himself, bringing to the day that special brand of "respect" that he stressed so earnestly in his state of the state speech this year and apparently forgot five minutes later.
"Whining," the governor called the mayor's remarks yesterday.
"Cowardly abuse of power," said O'Malley, seething over rumors spread about his marriage, and the latest spin on the story. "Taxpayer-financed dirty tricks," he said. "And I'm calling on the governor to stop right now the politics of character smear and character assassination."
"Whining is not a leadership style," the governor responded. "I don't like whiners. I've never associated with whiners."
This, from the governor who seems to spend half his time on the radio, bemoaning all the bad people keeping his administration from getting anything accomplished for the past three years.
And so, just when you thought it was safe not to think any more about Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the man Ehrlich once cheerfully crowned the Prince of Darkness, Steffen and the rumors he helped spread about the O'Malley marriage are back with us.
At his news conference yesterday, the mayor said Ehrlich operatives had fed WBAL radio information on a five-year-old e-mail from Max Curran III, the brother of the mayor's wife, Judge Katie Curran O'Malley. In the e-mail, Curran called his sister a "loose cannon."
This, after she was quoted in a March 2000 Washington Post article saying the mayor's public praise of her beauty "helps offset the rumors ... that he's running around on me. That he's been running around on me for years."
In the article, the mayor's wife said her husband's opponents had been spreading the rumors.
As the governor's people see it, this recycling of a five-year-old remark practically takes Steffen off the hook. Never mind that Steffen admitted spreading the rumors and took the fall for them - at least this shows he didn't start them, say the governor's people.
Question: If Steffen's not such a bad guy, why did Ehrlich fire him when Steffen's e-mails were made public?
Question: Why did Ehrlich say he would take the mayor aside and make amends for any bad feelings over the Steffen incident?
O'Malley says he's still waiting for such a gesture.
"This is not an honorable man," O'Malley said yesterday, standing alone at the edge of the Flower Mart. "He made this public statement when he [fired Steffen] about how he was going to apologize to me. I've seen him at event after event. He slinks away from me every time. He always carefully diverts his entourage elsewhere."
O'Malley had left the Flower Mart reviewing stand by now. He paused with his wife and two of his children outside the Walters Art Museum. He repeated his remarks from the morning news conference: about character assassination, about "a premeditated, orchestrated and relentless campaign run by dirty tricks operatives close to the governor, funded on state taxpayer dollars."
And he called on Ehrlich "to release the thousands of e-mails pertaining to Joe Steffen that he has refused to release" and "end this cowardly abuse of power."
By this time, Ehrlich offered his own broadside. He'd spoken to the Maryland Business Council, at Towson University, and taken questions afterward from half a dozen reporters about the latest flap.
That's when Ehrlich cited O'Malley's "whining." He used the word five different times, so he must have meant it.
So let's get this straight: A man has rumors spread about his marriage by one of the governor's long-time aides - an aide who claimed that "a few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the story got some real float." The rumors have been spread across the state for months and months.
And, when he tries to defend himself and his family, the governor of Maryland calls this whining?